In Hebrews 13:17, the write admonishes Christians to be obedient to them "that have the rule over you" (KJV). This verse is quoted more, perhaps, than any other verse by those individuals holding to the authoritarian view of elders. By that, I mean those individuals who believe that elders have inherent authority vested in them by God, and that they truly are "officers" in the church who rule over all other Christians in the local congregation.
This position was taken by J.T. Smith in both debates with Charles Holt. Bro. Smith affirmed in the debates that elders have the right to make all final decisions in matters of judgment. He acknowledged that, at times, elders, go too far in the exercise of their judgment, but he referred to this as an "abuse." How in the world can you teach someone they have the right to do something, but, if they do it, it is an abuse, Elders either have the right or they do not have the right to make all decisions in matters of judgment. To admit there are "abuses" at times is to evade the issue. How could eiders be charged with "lording it over" if they were only doing what was told them they could do? These individuals who hold this authoritarian view teach that anyone who questions this authority or who refuses to submit to such assumed authority is guilty of disobeying God.
There is no question that Hebrews 13:17 teaches obedience. Those who hold to the authoritarian view are quick to point out from this passage that elders do rule and, if they rule, there must be those who are ruled. In verse 7 of this same chapter, the Hebrews were told to "remember them who have the rule over them." Why were they to do this? It was not because of arbitrary rule vested or authority, but "because they had spoken unto them the word of God, whose faith they were to follow." If verse 7 does not teach arbitrary rule by those who preached the word, why is it assumed that verse 17 teaches arbitrary rule of elders. Would not the word "rule" in both verses have the same meaning? Most of the later versions render the passage in verse 17 as "Obey your leaders."
In Matthew 20:25-28, Jesus told the apostles, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them (vs. 26). "It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant;" and (vs. 27) "whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (NASV). Jesus makes it clear in this passage that, under the Gentiles, the rulers did lord it over the people, but in the kingdom, it was not to be so. Some say these verses apply to the apostles only and in no way limits or prohibits authority of elders. Even though he is talking to the apostles, the contrast is there on how it was under the Gentiles and how it was to be in the kingdom. Peter writes in 1 Peter 5:3 that elders or shepherds are not to lord it over those allotted to their charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.
Members of the congregation are to submit to their shepherds, or elders, when these men teach them the word of God and as they watch for their souls. Their "rule" is limited to their teaching and watching for the souls of those allotted to their charge. The concept which is prevalent today is that members are to submit to elders in all matters of judgment without question. Their decision is final and cannot be appealed to anyone.
Members are to submit to elders in the same sense that elders are to submit to the members. In Ephesians 5:21, we are told by Paul that we are to submit one to another in the fear of God. When eiders realize they are not rulers in the sense of an arbitrary ruler, and when members and elders start submitting to each other, we will then see our relationships improving to that which God intended.
Recently, where I attend, one of the elders was called upon to lead a prayer on behalf of an individual who responded to the invitation. In his prayer, he asked God's blessing on all of the elders and then he said "help us be leaders instead of rulers." How wonderful it is to hear men who serve as shepherds and who realize their responsibility is that of leadership rather than that of arbitrary rule. Elders are required to serve rather than be served.
In matters of discipline, I am sure we have all seen instances where the first knowledge of a withdrawal or marking of an individual is when the elders read a letter to the congregation informing them of the action taken. Members are expected to accept their judgment in this matter without question. We have taught for years that we establish authority by example, command, or necessary inference. How could the above action possibly fit into any of the three categories? Does it not seem strange to you that the scriptures reveal nothing about elders disciplining anyone? Why did not Paul address the elders in 1 Cor. 5 and instruct them to deal with the problem of the incestuous person? Rather, he instructed the whole congregation to handle the matterˇ
The same could be said about the question of circumcision which arose in Acts 15. Evidently, the matter was discussed by the apostles and elders in the presence of the of the whole congregation (vs. 12). The results of the discussion seemed good and the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to send a letter to the brethren in Antioch. To whom was this letter delivered? It was delivered to the saints in Antioch; and when they read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. If such a letter were written today, it would be addressed to the elders to be handled exclusively by them. I dare say that few members of any congregation today would ever see such a letterˇ About the only things members see today are the Thank You notes, baby shower notices, etc. Why, oh, why can we not see that the initiatives of the members are being stifled, abilities destroyed, and souls lost by the exclusion practiced by men who serve as elders?
Yes, members are to "obey those who have the rule over them," but rather than viewing this commandment as requiring submission to authority and to arbitrary rule, it should be viewed as requiring submission to the shepherd's leadership and counsel as he teaches God's word and as he lives a Godly life among us.